Like the rest of South East Asia, Thailand offers a lot to travellers. Beautiful beaches and landscapes, great weather, fantastic food and inexpensive prices make it an appealing destination, and many millions of visitors flock to the country every year.
For those looking to stay connected while they’re there, the good news is that buying a local SIM card is a straightforward and inexpensive process, with decent data speeds and good coverage almost everywhere.
Here’s what you need to know.
There are three cell networks in Thailand, operated by dtac, AIS and TrueMove. While you can also buy SIM cards and service from resellers, there’s little point in doing so for most short-term visitors to the country.
AIS has the largest market share, and also has a large network of Wi-fi hotspots that you can access as part of the more expensive packages. It seems like you’re rarely far from one of these hotspots, which don’t count towards your mobile data allowance.
The company sells prepaid service under the 1-2-Call and you! Mobile brands. Although the latter provides more flexibility, most travellers will find themselves using 1-2-Call SIMs as they’re more widely available.
I’ve used dtac’s Happy prepaid service in the past, but now tend to stick with AIS due to those Wi-fi hotspots. Note you’ll need a phone that supports the 2100Mhz band to get 3G data (almost all GSM phones do), and 4G/LTE isn’t available at the time of writing.
Like many other things in Thailand, buying a SIM card is simple. If you fly into Bangkok’s main Suvarnabhumi airport, all three cell companies have booths beside each other in the arrival hall. They all offer pretty much the same tourist-focused packages, which are aimed mainly at those spending a week or less in the country.
If you’re in a hurry and not in the country for long, feel free to pick up one of these packages — but for better deals, seek out one of the company’s retail shops outside the airport, or a Family Mart convenience store (which can be found all over Thailand).
Depending on where you buy your SIM, you may be asked for your passport — there’s technically a requirement to register your details, but it’s not always enforced, especially in smaller stores. Instructions for activation are written in English and Thai on the packaging, but the salesperson will often do this for you (especially at the airport or official stores).
When purchasing at a convenience store you typically buy the card for 50 baht (look for a Freedom 3G card), plus a top-up voucher for as much as you need. Add the credit from the voucher by following the instructions printed on it, then activate your desired package with a specific code.
Many of the staff in these stores speak enough English to understand what you’re after and explain the basics of what you need to do.
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If you buy one of the AIS tourist packages at the airport, you’ll pay 299 baht ($10) for a card with 1.5GB of data valid for seven days, plus 100 baht call credit valid for a month.
There’s also a 459 baht option with three SIM cards and 3GB of data valid for a week, which could be useful for small groups. Packages valid for a month are also available for higher prices, but in that case you’re better off waiting until you’re outside the airport and buying a standard 1-2-Call package.
If you buy your SIM card elsewhere, you’ll have access to the full range of 1-2-Call packages. They are many and varied, with validity ranging from a day to a month.
One of the more useful ones includes 2GB of data valid for 30 days for 239 baht (enter *777*75#), but check here for the latest offers — they change all the time. Local calls and SMS are very inexpensive, and I’ve never spent more than 50 baht in a month on them.
You can buy top-ups at Family Mart convenience stores and many other locations. Just keep an eye out for the AIS / 1-2-Call logo.
Coverage and Data Speeds
AIS coverage is good almost anywhere you’re likely to go as a tourist, and much of the rest of the country as well. I’ve had full signal most of the time in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and other provincial capitals, as well as on bus and scooter trips in the countryside.
I even had signal for a while after crossing the border into Cambodia, at least until I got outside the range of the last Thai cell tower.
Data speeds are reasonable without being exceptional — the speeds shown in screenshot below are pretty typical.